Tag: performance

Performing As Art

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been discussing how my recent adventures in music performance have engendered growth in my compositional vision and in my ability to advocate for myself. Before finally moving on to other topics, I’d like to consider one additional advantage I’ve reaped from this focus on playing live music: an enhanced connection to other art disciplines.

Ripple 2 by Katherine Kavanaugh

Ripple 2 by Katherine Kavanaugh

I’ve always been fascinated by the visual and literary arts—yes, I’m one of those people who has, in the words of Michael Cunningham, “swooned over sentences” (just as I trust that writers exist who have leapt with joy at harmonies)—and I consider music an integral part of the greater intellectual community. I frequently garner creative sparks for new pieces from works in other disciplines, and I find that the obsessions of non-musical thinkers often can provide incredibly fertile soil for germinating compositional ideas. Despite this willingness to engage with visual art works, I’d felt stymied in my abilities to collaborate across fields. On those few occasions when I’d been able to work with poets, choreographers, and visual artists, the relative slowness with which I compose had forced me away from true co-creation into an ultimately unsatisfactory exchange of final products. Instead of collaborative works, we found ourselves piecing together completed ideas from our different home fields in hopes that the juxtapositions might somehow create a coherent whole.

My current engagement with performing began as a way of overcoming these barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration. By responding to artistic impetuses with sounds that I was able to physically produce in the moment, I was able to share in the genesis of installations and events. My music became an integral part of the process of conceiving these artworks and the resulting creations felt truly collaborative. Currently, I’m happily working towards a September gallery opening at which I’ll be directing a team of musicians as we perform on a water-based gallery-sized installation by Baltimore artist Katherine Kavanaugh. As you can see from these photographs, the visuals will be stunning!

Ripple by Katherine Kavanaugh

Ripple by Katherine Kavanaugh

I’m finding that thinking as a performer in these types of situations can be liberating. If I were thinking solely as a composer, at this moment I would be physically nauseous at the thought of having about two months to produce an hour-long composition on an instrument that doesn’t exist yet. As a performer, I’m looking forward to exploring new sounds that can’t possibly exist in the concert hall and to interacting with an audience of art lovers in a unique setting. As an artist, I’m very excited to be able to create a new piece in collaboration with someone whose work I greatly admire, and I’m thankful that my newfound path has led me to these sorts of opportunities.

Performing as Self-Advocacy

Last week in this space, I began discussing my recent forays into performing, in terms of my ambivalent emotional response to these opportunities and their influence on my current compositional voice. As I’ve pursued this path, I’ve found that it’s also been a fruitful avenue for self-advocacy, in obvious and surprising ways.

One of my reasons for beginning to perform publicly was in order to be able to present my own works. The ability to travel solo has opened up doors that otherwise might have been closed due to funding or time constraints. I can be available for venues that want to present my music but don’t have access to the money needed to hire ensembles that can perform my works or to dedicated musicians who already know pieces from my repertoire. I can interact directly with interested listeners, feeling viscerally those moments in my compositions that allow attention to wander or demand full concentration. As I expected, I can use these public performances to generate interest in my music.

Although I’ve enjoyed those obvious advantages of performing, the more unexpected benefits have been more interesting to me. First and foremost, I have appreciated the growth in the development of my own compositional voice—described last week in this space—engendered by these concerts. If that were the sole profit generated by this path, it would be enough reason to pursue it.

Additionally, I’ve found that my concertizing experience has helped me to communicate my ideas in three different ways: building trust with the musicians who are learning my notated compositions, demonstrating the techniques I use in these pieces, and giving performers a sense of my musical aesthetic.

I’ve found that many musicians with whom I’ve worked since I’ve begun performing have taken the time to listen to my solo performances before beginning to learn my music. Those who have done so have shown a greater understanding for the sounds I’ve sought in my music, and have been able to work more quickly towards my desired sound. They come to these rehearsals knowing when sounds should be so delicate that they break up, and can intuit the difference between those times when the indicated microtones are essential parts of exactly-tuned harmonies and when they are more gestural effects. Rehearsals can go more smoothly when these musicians arrive with some knowledge of the unnotatable performance practice associated with my compositions.

The hands-on experience of performance has also allowed me to physically represent those aspects of my music that defy notation. Instead of talking through how I’d like gestures to sound, I am more likely to pick up an instrument to demonstrate. When I incorporate unusual techniques that might be difficult to replicate, I can make videos of how they can be executed as part of the piece. Instead of asking others to guess exactly what I mean in my attempts at describing musical sounds through graphics and words, I can save time and energy by showing them.

Finally, all of these shifts have led to a greater level of trust with those people who are looking at new pieces for the first time. They know that I’ve stepped onto the stage myself in order to perform the types of seemingly silly gestures that they now see in their parts, and they take comfort in this fact. The knowledge that we are comrades in presenting my compositions makes them feel less exposed by the odd demands of this music. The musicians with whom I am working seem to feel more like collaborators in these unusual concert experiences than in the years before I wore the performing hat in addition to the composing one.

Performing as Composing

As regular readers of this column know, in the past few years I’ve begun to perform music in public for the first time. What began as accompaniment for performance art gradually developed into group improvisations and finally into unaccompanied shows and engagements as a concerto soloist. Emotionally, this process has been simultaneously incredibly difficult and rewarding.

As with nearly every aspect of my compositional life, I began this process by questioning my artistic reasons for following this path. Since I hadn’t studied any instrument regularly, I lacked the basic skill sets that are second nature to most professional musicians, and maintained an utter ignorance of proper practicing techniques and strategies to learn new repertoire. While most pre-teen musicians can far surpass my manual dexterity, I could bring two things to the table: an ability to hear and control musical structure in interesting ways, and an interest in producing unusual sounds. Over time, I began to realize that these latter interests allowed me to create performances that could fully express certain compositional ideas while being of interest to a small segment of listeners. The fact that I am horrible at the sorts of musical tasks at which most people excel opened up alternative paths for sonic exploration and forced me to create a sound that fully reflects my personality and compositional interests.

I find it incredibly difficult to step on stage in order to perform my own music. A huge part of me expects someone to point at me and shout “charlatan” or to at least boo vociferously and correctly. Of course, I had similar fears when I began teaching and only overcame them through years of experience, so that at this point in time I’m confident that I’ve thoroughly researched the course materials and their intellectual foundations and that I belong in front of a classroom. As a performer I still feel like an under-skilled neophyte, but I’m gradually coming to trust that I can provide a unique experience, that my unusual background and proclivities allow me to approach performance in a way that certain people will appreciate and that others will at least accept.

As a listener, the pieces that I most greatly treasure are those that create sound worlds that I’ve never heard before. While these original sounds can be produced through harmonic (especially microtonal), melodic, and/or rhythmic means, I have always been drawn most strongly to interesting timbres. My own performances have given me the ability to scratch this itch, to question the basic function of instruments in order to force them to produce sounds entirely different from those they were designed to create. I’ve found that I can augment the tinkling of the toy piano by bowing, strumming, and plucking it (among various other techniques) until it transcends its original purpose, and I similarly can explore other instruments. I had always wanted the sort of composer/performer relationship that would allow for collaborative conversations on how to experiment with the basics of performance itself, and now, by assuming both roles, I have created this relationship.

My ability to fully explore the subtle gradations of these instruments opened up surprising new possibilities for me. Not only could I create new timbral possibilities, but I also began to get a better feel for how these related to other musical parameters. By exploring the distinctions between the overtones created by playing specific notes at various volumes or in different ways, I could create new harmonic worlds. By shaping the excess noise produced by these unusual performance techniques, I found that I could create new types of melodies. Finally, I began to feel that my timbral, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic languages could emanate from a single source.

As I discovered these new methods of producing sound on my own instrument, I began to apply these techniques for exploration to my written compositions. Physically grappling with a violin or guitar allowed me to draw the same sorts of confluences between the musical parameters while composing for string-based ensembles. I learned how to ask better questions when approaching projects for ensembles that for practical reasons wouldn’t allow me unlimited access to copies of the instruments themselves or when my knowledge of the basic performance technique on the instrument was miniscule enough that such access wouldn’t be useful.

Thus, my newly discovered abilities as a performer have directly altered my compositional output and have provided me with an outlet for experimentation that I look forward to continuing to explore. For these reasons, I’ll continue looking for opportunities to step onstage, despite my deep-seated fears.

The Plight of the Page Turner

One of the running gags in my life (there are several) is the way my personal skill set has always expanded in the direction of impending obsolescence. When I was in high school, I learned how to edit audio and video—on tape. I mastered the idiosyncrasies of the IBM Selectric 3 typewriter. (Honestly, I still miss it.) In college, I staved off more than one eviction notice by scrounging opportunities for copying out parts from scores, by hand. I found myself writing newspaper criticism just in time to see it run alongside a spate of stories predicting the death of newspapers. (I have a book coming out in November; given my track record, I’m half expecting the publishing industry to vanish by Hanukkah.)

Girl at piano

Any time now…

There’s one other skill I developed, one I actually took an odd amount of satisfaction in: turning pages. If you go to classical concerts, you see people turning pages all the time, for pianists, or organists, or, occasionally, other instrumentalists whose hands are too busy to advance themselves to the next page. Turning pages might seem like an almost desultorily simple task. It is not. It is a skill, and a surprisingly delicate one at that.

Still, it’s a skill that one acquires mostly by happenstance. I have both seen a movie (La tourneuse de pages, a 2006 thriller directed by Denis Dercourt) and read a book (The Page Turner, by David Leavitt, from 1998) that, for all their respective charms, posit the somewhat fictional notion of page turners who develop close, lasting relationships—professional and otherwise—with those they turn for. Page turning, at least in my experience, is far more likely to be a last-minute consideration, a straw drawn by the member of the stage crew with the best reading skills, or the best temporary rapport with the pianist, or (and I have seen this too many times for it to be a coincidence, I am sure) the best dress, or the one who, like me, actually and oddly enjoys it. But, however much of an afterthought it can be, it is, at least, something that has been a part of musical performance for as long as there has been notation.

I give it ten more years.


Page turning is one of those things that only acquires dramatic import in inverse proportion to how well it’s done. Maybe it’s the perverse pride I took in the task, but my attention is invariably redirected whenever a page turner is ill at ease, or out of sync with the pianist, or constantly playing a game of chicken with the high-wire combination of a recalcitrant binding and a drafty hall, pages teetering on the edge of turning themselves back before being hastily slapped back into place. (Boston’s Jordan Hall, notoriously breezy onstage, tends to witness instances of the latter at a fairly steady rate.) My own page-turning history has its less distinguished moments—I was once called in to turn pages for a concert featuring Peter Serkin and the Guarneri Quartet, touring with a brand new Hans Werner Henze quintet and a venerable Dvořák counterpart. Serkin was playing the Henze off a miniature score, as I remember, which presented its own challenges; they proved trivial in comparison with the Dvořák, Serkin’s copy of which had seen such wear that the binding actually split in the midst of one page turn, causing half the book to slip into his lap in the middle of the performance. Serkin merely played on, serene and imperturbable.

page turn

That sort of possibility for disaster always made me mildly amazed that better systems never arose. The Chicago-based pianist and composer George Flynn came up with a scheme in which he’d copy his formidably demanding scores onto large, loose leaves, then arrange them on the piano in an alternating pattern such that he could be reading one leaf while the page turner removed another. Such ingenuity is rare, though. At last month’s Burr Van Nostrand concert, there was a page turner faced with manipulating a score so cumbersomely large that, after a while, I simply began to regard his efforts as a layer of theatrical counterpoint.

Actually, given how much of the rest of the peripheral choreography of classical music performance has become fodder for avant-garde shenanigans, it’s a little surprising that there aren’t more pieces that deliberately rope the odd ritual of page turning into their provocation. Still, there are a few. Pauline Oliveros, in 1961, wrote a Trio for Flute, Piano, and Page Turner that casts the latter as something between an organ assistant and a doppelgänger, not only manning the score, but also holding down piano keys for resonance, reaching into the instrument to enable harmonics and sound-altering preparations, and even changing places with the pianist at one point. (Another Oliveros piece, Aeolian Partitions, gives similar prominence to the page turner.) In the coda of Gerard Grisey’s 1975 Partiels (part of the large cycle Les espaces acoustiques), the piece’s long-range exploration of musical tone is punctuated by a brief exploration of the more plebeian sounds of performance that surround it; the rustling and crumpling of the players’ sheet music plays a prominent role. It’s a nifty gambit—musically colonizing the performance space surrounding the music, an invasion made easier by our custom of pretending that space isn’t there.


Music history is progressive, though not in the immediately obvious way, the notion of styles superseding each other that held sway throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries—that illusion has been run over by the continuing, persistent availability, via recording and performance, of pretty much the entirety of a millennium’s worth of repertoire. But recording and the evolution of live performance point towards music history’s real inexorable advance: technology. Instruments get louder; ranges (pitch and dynamic) get wider; notation gets more intricate and detailed; distribution gets easier and faster. And at every turn, performance and compositional practices change to take due advantage.

Steel engraving of composer Mozart and Beethoven from 1882

Will the advance of technology stay the human page turner’s hand?

Not that this is necessarily a tale of innovation and obsolescence, either—musicians have always had a healthy appetite for resurrecting the past, and with ever-increasing notions of fidelity. Perhaps in response to the sheer pace of technological advance it created, the 20th century also brought us the period-instrument movement, actually endeavoring to recreate and remaster older technologies of equipment and technique. (This is not limited to classical music. A couple weeks ago, I was shopping around for a guitar amplifier, and thus found myself ruefully and hopelessly considering the five-figure premium on, say, a 1958 Fender Twin.) But there is a deliberate element to such fidelity: eschewing what the current era takes for granted, making the effort to seek out and master older iterations of technology, and making that endeavor a central feature of performance practice—and, to be sure, marketing.


Like I said, ten years. Pretty soon, tablet computers, iPads and their ilk, are going to be so powerful and so cheap, and the digitization of libraries so far along, that carrying an entire collection of sheet music on a single, slim machine—one that will flip from page to page via a tap on the screen, or a foot pedal, or just by electronically processing its way through the score in time with the performer—will be the unremarkable norm. And the page turner will be obsolete.

Except in those cases where they won’t—in performances of those few pieces that make the physical, paper score and/or its unnoticed steward a specified part of the piece. Once scores go fully electronic—and they will—performances of pieces like Grisey’s Partiels or Oliveros’s Trio will become, in a way, period-practice affairs, necessitating that the performers seek out paper scores and the requisite personnel to manipulate them. As the historically informed movement works ever forward in history, one will perhaps see the return of paper scores as a deliberate choice, finding another layer of period-accurate theatre in the physical presence of the graphic efforts of Stockhausen, or Crumb, or Cage, or even just in the subtle gravity of that extra person on stage, lurking in the background, embodying equal parts calm and risk.

And that has gotten me thinking. For a good while now, the always-vague term “new music” has been applied with increasing tension to both that music that is actually, chronologically new, and that body of post-World War II modern and post-modern music for which its “newness”—its stylistic discrepancy from the canonic classical music that, with the advent of recording, continued to curiously hang around the culture—was its most prominent characteristic. Until I considered the prospect of its demise, I never considered that physical scores and the accompanying page turner could be something as important as an historical boundary. But maybe that’s what will prove to be the dividing line between new music and “new music.” Maybe this is one of those rare occasions when a single technological shift can plausibly represent a shift of historical ground. Given how hard it usually is to pin down such things, it wouldn’t surprise me that such a boundary would be, in the end, paper-thin.

Personal Filters

Recently, I asked my wife what she thought of a new choral work that a colleague of mine had written for our university’s commencement ceremony a few weeks ago. Since we had both attended the ceremony—me as an enrobed faculty member, she as a staff photographer—I knew that she had heard the same work and performance that I had. She responded that, while she liked the work overall, the unbalanced lighting on the choir caused by their placement in the auditorium made it difficult for her to fully enjoy the performance.

Then last week I had the wonderful opportunity to reunite with two of my good friends and classmates from my time in the USC film scoring program. As with any gathering of composers, once dinner and drinks were finished and the evening wore on, we ended up playing recordings of our recent works for each other. While we all had great fun catching up musically, what really stuck out for me was how these two top-notch composers who worked primarily in film and television interpreted my chamber and large ensemble works as if they were film scores. Their comments on how they could “see” a particular scene or how they could hear certain influences didn’t phase me a bit (since that mindset is very much a natural state with most composers in Hollywood), and, to be honest, it wasn’t long before I was hearing dramatic arcs in my own works that I was unaware had existed.

Both of these episodes were already resonating in my mind as I read Richard Dare’s article “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained” which was published earlier this week on the Huffington Post. In the article, Dare—the newly minted CEO of the beleaguered Brooklyn Philharmonic—attempts to describe what a typical orchestral concert experience feels like from the viewpoint of a “typical” audience member accompanied by a “guide” affiliated with the orchestra giving the concert. The primary complaints that Dare brings up included the process of buying tickets at the ticket counter, the reverence his guide seems to place on the concert hall itself, his frustration at not being able to express his feelings for the music being performed by clapping, laughing, or shouting during a piece, his interpretation of the audience as deferential and “possibly catatonic,” and his guide’s seeming ignorance of his own confusion as to the concert-going experience.

From these experiences, Dare then extrapolates outward, making broad statements as to what is wrong with the genre of classical music. After looking back at the (supposedly) halcyon days of Beethoven and early 19th-century Vienna, Dare compares our current concert traditions, including the (supposedly) strong emphasis on the conductor as high priest to, well, I should just let his words speak for themselves:

The most common practices in classical musical venues today represent a contrite response to a totalitarian belief system no one in America buys into anymore. To participate obediently is to act as a slave. It is counter to our culture. And it is not, I am certain, what composers would have wanted: A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.

This “once more unto the breach, dear friends” concept of rallying the HuffPo-reading masses, Occupy-style, to demand the removal of our silence-laden shackles and the “de-maestro-ization” of the conductor (classical music’s seemingly obvious analog to the “1%”) is both passionate and timely. Dare’s statements about composers being “real people” who “bleed like the rest of us”, while not exactly new, are well-intended and a breath of fresh air coming from an orchestra administrator. If one squints enough to miss that it was composers such as Wagner and Mahler who were some of the first to impose those evil distraction-free traditions on audiences so the focus might be directed towards the music being performed (which was mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on concert etiquette Dare links to in his piece), his overall zeal for changing the concert-going experience is both visceral and convincing.

The common thread that runs through my earlier anecdotes and Dare’s article is that all three are examples of the effect of filters—namely, a straightforward musical event being filtered through the eyes, ears, and experiences of an individual. There were probably hundreds of people who attended the same concert as Dare and, because of previous concert attendance and their attitude towards the environment, it is quite likely that many would have had a completely opposite reaction.

There has been an explosion of reactions to Dare’s article (which was, of course, one of the points of the article) in the comments section, as well as on Facebook and Twitter, and it is there that one finds the clearest example of these experiential “filters”. What is surprising with the reactions is not that they lean heavily one way or the other, but that there seem to be just as many detractors as there are supporters—for every “Amen” there seems to be a “WTF?” Not only that, but the reactions seem to exist irrespective of background or profession—non-professionals in the article’s comment section fall on both sides, but I’ve also seen examples of performers, composers, and even conductors who have come out strongly both for and against Dare’s article.

I’m sure one could draw comparisons to our current American political climate where our country has been seemingly bifurcated along party lines with neither understanding how the other can have the opposing view on exactly the same person/policy/event/etc. But inasmuch as our own expansive and inclusive artistic community is concerned, this binary “good/bad” knee-jerk reaction is as unwise as it is common.

Concert music has been dealing with its own three-way tug-of-war between those who enjoy music that is experimental, pop-influenced, or traditional in nature for many years now, and many of the arguments are just as surface-based as Dare’s rant against the totalitarian state of the concert hall. After all this time, we still haven’t figured out that there is enough room in our culture for each style, each genre, each musical language to not only stand on its own, but for others to present and interpret the music in new and unique ways. Hopefully, one day, we will realize that we do have our own filters, move on, and enjoy whatever music we wish in the manner of our own choosing.

An Open Letter to Performers of New Music

Dear Sirs and Mesdames, and kids of all ages (from the newest Brooklyn upstart to the great-grandpappy major ensembles alike):

Look. We composers make loads of mistakes—we’re often prone to dreaminess, given to sloppy page-turns, and obsessed with details of musical structure while largely oblivious to the more practical realities of performing our gnarly-ass music. The best among us welcome frank criticism, which leads us to become the kinds of collaborators who are sensitive to the needs of performing musicians.

I’ve been guilty of some pretty grave errors in my own early dealings with ensembles, but all in all I consider myself fortunate to have had the chance to benefit from the gift of honest feedback. Likewise, I have a particular pet peeve about something that even many fine and well-established ensembles seem to do on occasion: not letting composers know when performances of our music take place.

Here’s why it’s so important for ensembles to make sure they keep living composers apprised of performances of their own works: performances are as much the bread and butter of a composer’s career as the performer who actually brings the new work to life onstage. They are the reason we make notated scores at all, as it’s easy to do without performers entirely with today’s technology, if that suits a composer’s temperament. Performances are the artistic, social, and commercial center of the composer’s world, something that we work tirelessly to secure and endlessly appreciate. So not clueing in living composers to a performance of their work (via the composer’s publisher, manager, or personal website) more or less deprives us of a chance to properly support the performance, while the performing organization at least gets to program a composition it (presumably) deemed worthy of performance.

Composers need to be informed of performances, first and foremost, to adequately report them to ASCAP or BMI. Each year licensed venues pay a flat fee for the use of all BMI- and/or ASCAP-licensed music, and the royalties collected by these organizations are then disbursed to composers on a regular basis. Even for those of us who don’t collect very much, every little bit helps and I know more than a few composers who were personally spurred on to succeed when they received some of their first royalty checks. Not ensuring that composers are paid fairly for their contributions—especially for those of us who are the youngest and least established—would be just the same as the composer walking off with part of the performer’s performance fee, or forcing the ensemble to spend countless hours re-taping confusing page-turns, when that should have been the composer’s responsibility.

Performances are also a social opportunity, especially when a composer is performed by musicians he or she has not met previously. It’s a chance to notify local friends, colleagues, and possibly critics of the event, and a chance for the composer to contribute to filling seats with word-of-mouth and publicity. More than a few times I’ve found out about a performance of my music after the fact, only to think, “Damn, I would have liked to support both the ensemble and my piece with a few invites, a well-placed phone call, or a pre-concert talk, but they didn’t give me a chance!” So performers who neglect to be in touch with living composers about their programming plans are just shooting themselves in the feet.

Composers also know that performances are where impressions (and connections) are made, and where curious supporters will often make a critical decision on whether or not to go forward in approaching composers for new work. Again, this is crucial for our most junior colleagues and I hate to think about how differently my own career might have panned out had I been left out of the loop for some of the initial performances that established my greenhorn reputation.

In my experience, most ensembles and performers of new music are at least aware of these points; it’s just that when push comes to shove, this detail can easily get lost in the shuffle. Informing the composer is both the right thing to do, and it’s also the course of action that maximizes the advantages of performing new music in the first place. I take it you guys didn’t start playing new music just because of the awesome accidental placement and glamorous paychecks, right?

With sincere regards and admiration,

A Composer Who Cares


As I prepare for a semi-improvised performance at the NIME conference this week, I find myself thinking a great deal about improvisation and indeterminacy (more on the distinction between the two in a bit). Specifically, why is indeterminacy still looked upon with such suspicion in the new music world, 100 years after John Cage’s birth? Oh sure, certain aleatoricisms have been tamed and have found their way into the standard notational vocabulary—familiar gambits like box notation and feathered beaming. At this point almost no one objects to their use, and they’ve entered into common performance practice. But paradoxically, this renders them almost wholly determinate in sound, encouraging rote and mechanical use. Casually deployed, they can become conspicuous signposts that announce “this is a new music piece” and not much else.

Thankfully, thoughtful composers continue to develop new notational gambits, but this presents its own challenges, and puts an extra burden on performers to absorb this new information. Composers can try to take on as much of that burden as possible by making the notation as clear and vivid as they can; in this respect, I admire David Smooke’s approach. In a recent post on his toy piano concerto, Smooke describes a subtle and flexible notational system capable of loosening some musical parameters (e.g. rhythm, time) in order to make other parameters (e.g. texture, ensemble coordination) easier to control. Of course, some aspects of this notation are not exactly new (the unmeasured preludes of Couperin and Pandolfi come to mind).

So far, so good. But when indeterminacy gets bigger and scarier, people’s attitudes start to change. We can distinguish between indeterminate notation meant to evoke a specific sound, and indeterminate notation that is meant to prompt or provoke the performer in some way. The former is almost universally sanctioned; the latter is still controversial. I wish it wasn’t, because it’s a powerful locus of creativity. Too often I’ve encountered the attitude that, by leaving too much up to the performer, the composer has abdicated his or her professional duties. I hope that this is mostly due to misunderstanding, but I worry that it’s an impossible ideological divide. In this provocative model of indeterminacy, a little willful notational obscurity is even desired, because it compels the performer to engage with the piece deeply. That is, if they’re not put off right away—it’s a tactic that requires great trust between performer and composer.

I wonder if the resistance to indeterminacy is somehow a part of the long hangover from the musical culture of deliriously extreme specificity which dominated the last century. Perhaps ironically, even this musical movement culminates in a kind of indeterminacy of ability in the music of Brian Ferneyhough. Here, the notation is about as specific as you can get, but the near-impossibility of it shifts the nexus of indeterminacy from the details of the notation to the capabilities of the performer.

Some of my music also ends up occupying an awkward middle ground between indeterminacy and specificity, and I’d like to defend this awkwardness if I can. In Mobile I for violin and electronics, the pitch content of the electronics is unspecified, but descended from the spectral content of the violin, ensuring that it remains musically connected to the violinist’s performance. Like Smooke’s concerto, the end result has a particular texture that is unique to the piece. I wonder, though, if it’s too vague to satisfy those fixated on specificity, and too predictable to appease those who prioritize exploration.

This also raises questions about the distinction between indeterminacy and improvisation. Often this distinction seems more semantic to me than anything, and this is especially true when it comes to music with live electronics. If we view the computer as a willed agent, then surely it is improvising. On the other hand, if you break the program down into its rule-based or stochastic components, then it is merely another layer of notation, this time in the form of code. Part of this is due to technological limitations; often the tools are not as reliable or predictable as we would like.

But working with these limitations can also lead to novel, inventive solutions. This crosses my mind many times while working with Mimi (Multi-modal Interaction for Musical Improvisation, a software system for live human-machine improvisation designed by Alexandre François). As I practice with Mimi, the fear of a less-than-perfect improvisation is often present, and so there is a strong temptation to make the performance as predictable as possible. However, Mimi won’t let me. Every time I sit down with the system, it does things I don’t expect and can’t predict. In the end, I think this is why I like indeterminacy—it compels me to do the things I am afraid of.

Notation Creation

Sample from Scroll by Will Redman

Sample from Scroll by Will Redman

“How much information does a composer working today attempt to convey to musicians through a written score?”

This is a really great question, asked by some students (non-musicians) in a course covering the history of music notation. A neighbor who teaches the class stopped over to ask me my opinion on the matter last night (being the only composer on the block can be fun!), and I’ve been tossing the question about in my head ever since.

Although my answer, which was basically “it depends on the composer,” was completely not helpful (because apparently her students, mostly engineering majors, wanted actual numbers), I’ve been pulling together some writings and examples of different notation styles for her to share with the students to help illustrate such an open-ended response. There are tons of options, but some favorites of mine include scores of George Crumb, Witold Lutosławski, Eleanor Hovda, Brian Ferneyhough (for a shot of jaw-dropping disbelief mixed with anxious butterflies), as well as Baltimore local, Will Redman.

I think that the majority of composers are simply aiming for clear and accurate communication through musical notation that will result in a performance that sounds similar to the music they hear in their imaginations. Obviously what that unrealized imaginary music is like, including how much detail it holds, also varies from individual to individual. Some strive for 100% accuracy, maybe others are comfortable with 60%, and some, as in the case of improvisation-heavy works, might have relatively few preconceptions about the sonic outcome. Kyle Gann has some opinions on notation issues, which are important reading for every composer (and a great read in general) whether or not you agree with the ideas presented.

My professor friend is also doing some fantastic exercises with the students, in which they pair up and one has to figure out how to communicate a sound—using any sort of “notation” they can come up with—for the other student to produce, like the sound of a train whistle, or waves crashing on rocks. It’s like musical Pictionary! I want to sit in on this class.

Sometimes, even the clearest and most detailed score doesn’t relay absolutely everything, and that’s when the phone comes in handy:

“Hey! So, this fast section at the end of your piece? We’re not totally sure how you want it to be played. Can you give us some more info?”

“Ummm…. like a drunken gypsy wedding band run amok.”

Ooooh. That’s it! We get it!”

Being able to talk with the composer (again, depending on the composer) can be a blessing and/or a curse of new music!

Choral Learning Curves

Sitting in my choral rehearsal last weekend, I was struck with how laborious the process of music learning can be–for the singers and for the conductor as well. For non-professional choirs, the first few months of the year can be a painful period as singers find their way into the complexities of the music. Conductors start to encourage singers to study their music between rehearsals with increasing urgency as the weeks go by.

For many choral singers, learning music on their own can be challenging, especially for those who don’t have the keyboard skills needed to play more than just their own part. Learning one part, without the other parts or accompaniment, doesn’t usually get a singer very far. Once back in the rehearsal room, surrounded by other voices and the accompaniment, the music learned without a context soon fades away.

Conductors and composers have developed a number of tools and techniques to help singers prepare outside of rehearsals. Alice Parker, a conductor, composer, and teacher working in the choral field for more than 50 years, believes that a good place to start is to study and learn the text with rhythmic precision, forming a strong foundation for dropping in the pitches later.

Singers can access a variety of online tools to help with their practice and learning. Two free websites, Silvas Woodshed and CyberBass contain MIDI files that highlight separate choral parts. While CyberBass features all classical works, the selection on Silvas Woodshed is more extensive, and includes a small selection of 20th-century works. Additional sites where materials can be purchased include Rehearsal Arts, which carries a selection of classical works where the part is sung by a professional teaching singer with the accompaniment behind–much easier to listen to than MIDI files. Difficult passages are slowed on special tracks called StudySpots. ChoraLine in the UK also carries quality materials, although these are all classical except for a small selection of pieces by popular contemporary British composers. Very few works by contemporary American composers are available on these sites.

Conductors will often create rehearsal materials for their choir if none are available. Examples might include playing the vocal parts on the piano, recording them, and circulating them as MP3 files. Some contemporary composers will provide MIDI recordings of their work highlighting each vocal part. Some choirs will provide recordings with a soloist singing individual parts with piano accompaniment, although making such recordings is time consuming and can be expensive.

My hope is that one day there will be a comprehensive virtual library of learning tools for contemporary choral works. Since this material can be the most challenging to learn and commercial recordings may not be available, this would ease the learning process and encourage more choirs to tackle contemporary works. Composers and conductors (with permission) could place audio files into the library for singers to access.

What tools do you use or recommend to facilitate the learning process of choral works?

Sonic Cartography and the Perception of Place

I found myself driving halfway across Los Angeles from the slowly gentrifying Northeast to the already gentrified Culver City.  When I arrived at the local park, I ditched the car and entered on foot—not knowing that the event I was covering would ultimately be held in a parking lot. So in a way, my experience of Nat Evans’s Assemblage (for sunset) started with a hike.

Evans is a composer from Seattle who has been creating a series of pieces for sunrise and sunset. The music—made from field recordings, bells, and traditional instruments—is coordinated with the changing light of the sky at dawn or dusk and is inspired by his studies in Zen meditation. Evans also cites the time-specific characteristic of Indian Ragas and site-specific pieces by Robert Moran and Stuart Dempster as strong influences.  Naturally, the works have to be experienced outside and at a precise time of day.  This is how I found myself on a tiny, trashy pad of asphalt on top of a hill in Culver City.  There I met Evans and a small group of listeners with media players in hand.  At Evans’s signal, we all sat on a retaining wall facing the Los Angeles basin, donned our headphones, and hit play at the same time, just ten minutes before sunset.

Nat Evans's Assemblage (for sunset)

Crowd gathered for Nat Evans’s Assemblage (for sunset)

These actions set in motion a change in our sense of the parking lot as a non-place to a special kind of focus on our humble hillside.  This began with the set up to Evans’s piece, which required a pause in movement; listeners sat down, turning off phones and committing themselves to the experience for the duration of the work. The group’s stillness and Evans’s sounds enclosed the space, transforming it into an intimate environment and giving it a rooted sense of place.  Listening on headphones rather than loudspeakers made the broad vista before us seem close at hand, even intimate.  Headphones also allowed the urban din to seep into the piece, effectively filling “silences” with the prevalent external soundscape. The co-production of site and sound made this piece work and created a focused sensibility you might expect to find in a church, but Evans produced it in a parking lot.  Outdoor works tend to frame the more mundane aspects of our everyday existence.  In Evans’s piece, small things took on weight and gravity.  Never have planes seemed so stunning and ponderous, or the counterpoint of city lights so poignant. The event’s locale was impermanent–not a brick and mortar building, but a transitional place: a parking lot.  So when the piece was over, the sense of place floated away, slowly removing itself as I walked back to my car and drove home.

This experience of Evans’s work dovetails with a recent interest of mine in human geography. As it is related to the subject of music performance, such study creates an awareness of our spaces, and the relative effect that they can have on a listener’s presence in that space.  It has led me to believe that the reason people enjoy music is not for the sonic aspects alone, but for its ability to create an environment where we feel closer to one another. Sound in space creates a platform of increased intimacy and connectedness. A consideration of human geography can help us understand how we can best engender effective concert programming and create a strong sense of place with the presentation of new and experimental works in new or traditional contexts.



There are two main branches of geography: physical geography which studies the processes found in the natural environment, and human geography which studies the world, people, and cultures in the built environment. Physical geography is a natural science while human geography is a social science.  The knowledge set found in human geography has broad-ranging applications in analyzing the way people experience the performing arts. Furthermore, our performances and installations serve as living realizations of long-held theories in the field.  If we could organize geographers on a spectrum from deterministic to poetic, we would be dealing here with the poetic ones.

“Until the 1970’s most human geographers considered space to be a neutral container, a blank canvas which is filled in by human activity.”—Phil Hubbard and Rob Kitchin [1]

Before the mid-20th century, human geographers would comprehend space much like the physical geographers: as a concrete measure of Euclidean geometry (with an x, y, and z axis).  Spaces were viewed as static containers where human activity transpired, but thinkers like Henri Lefebvre began to see geographical space as fundamentally social.  Geographers (specifically the humanists and Marxists) now understand that people construct their own sensibilities of space based on events, memories, and experience—and that spaces are defined and understood by lived experience.

I think we comprehend this pretty well in music: We know our concert halls are fundamentally social, with the rules of engagement built into the architecture and ethos of the space.  For as much as we see spaces as dynamic and social, however, we tend to falsely understand our halls as blank canvases for the focused presentation of sound. To alter this assumption, I would like to stretch Lefebvre’s sentiment to the concert experience via John Cage and his landmark “silent” piece, 4’33” (1952).  The work unveiled the concert hall (supposedly a neutral container) as a discrete sonic environment.  With Cage’s 4’33” we change our relationship to the concert space—in recognizing the existence of a music already present over which we perform works.  Put another way, a human geographer like Lefebvre might look at the concert experience as a co-production of the social experience (social space) and the music presented in that environment.



Space and place are often regarded as synonyms in referring to landscape, region, or other distinct areas.  For geographers, however, these terms have more nuanced definitions.  Their meanings and surrounding theories can be employed to make sense of our performance environments; identifying the qualities of our concert spaces, and helping to establish platforms for new and experimental works.

“Space” and “place” are familiar words denoting common experiences. We live in space. There is no space for another building on the lot.  The Great Plains look spacious.  Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other. There is no place like home. What is home?  It is the old homestead, the old neighborhood, hometown, or motherland. . . Space and Place are basic components of the lived world; we take them for granted.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [2]

Space is a more abstract concept than place. Space is undifferentiated, open, and potentially vast.  In contrast, place is enclosed and humanized space—space with value.  Anyone who experiences the limitless horizon of the sea can feel its spaciousness.  We establish place when we stop to make a fire for warmth, or share a tent with our partner on the sands overlooking this expanse. We feel the stability of this encampment (place), yet sit on the cusp of freedom and threatening openness (space).  They are not concrete terms, but poetic concepts that perhaps ring truer to artists than to cartographers.  As Yi-Fu Tuan says, we long for spaciousness and the unhindered movement that it affords us. It is this movement that we surrender to achieve the comfort and safety of place.

“Place is a pause in movement. . . The pause makes it possible for a locality to become a center of felt value.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [3]

If we experience space by moving through it, then we experience place by ceding this freedom and resting our body and mind.  Consider the arrival to an event such as a traditional orchestra concert; the movement from a busy street bustling with urban activity to a stationary seat in an enclosed and quiet concert hall is an exercise in two dynamically different environments.  One calls you to be aware of your peripheries and the sounds around you, while the other asks you to surrender movement and focus on the organized sounds in front of you. Our halls are set up like this for a reason; we take refuge in their comfort and value their stillness.  There was a presumption in human geography that we could only “take place” as humans, but more recently the field theorizes that we actively participate in creating place with memory, experience, and actions like a pause in movement.

“Immensity is within ourselves. . . As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense.  Indeed immensity is the movement of the motionless man.” —Gaston Bachelard [4]

Our spaces do not have to be immense to conjure deep and reverberant sentiments in a listener.  We carry immensity within us, and it is accessed while daydreaming, experiencing art, listening to music, etc. Bachelard goes on to explain that thisinner immensity” is what gives meaning to our experiences.  We can engender this “sense of the terrific” in listeners with volume and close proximity.  Unfortunately, this is why the orchestral environment often doesn’t capture visceral sensations of immensity in all listeners: the distance is too great, the volume too ineffectual. Although the performances are beautiful, the vast spaces of Avery Fisher, Disney Hall, and their ilk can drain the immediacy from a performance leaving some in the audience untouched.

“Permanence is an important element in the idea of place. Things and objects endure and are dependable in ways that human beings, with our biological weaknesses and shifting moods do not endure and are not dependable.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [3]

Our brick and mortar concert halls, clubs, and galleries are the principal places for our musical community.  Avery Fisher Hall, which has stood since 1962, holds a weight that a more temporary structure would not have.  This permanence makes it a guarantor of meaning and a locus for identity.  We see ourselves as belonging to these places and linked to those people who have gone before.  The same could be said for an institution like an art museum, a house of worship, or a dusty oft-frequented pub. Repeat visits to a place create memories that resonate and expresses the same attitude and environment with each return.  These permanent structures allow us to discover and rediscover with each visit; perhaps our first time in a space yields delight, the second comfort, the third contentment. 

In contrast, an event held in a temporary place, like a parking lot or stretch of desert, creates a different experience for the listener. Because the environment is ephemeral, you can’t visit and revisit the place because the place will be gone.  After a momentary structure is dismantled, all that is left is an open space, the memory of the event and the human warmth felt during that time.  These temporal structures (both social and physical – public and private) should not be considered “less-than” a more permanent structure; they can be created more casually, more idiosyncratically, and are therefore more strongly affixed to a particular time and place.


“Intimacy between persons does not require knowing the details of each other’s life; it glows in moments of true awareness and exchange.  Each intimate exchange has a locale which partakes in the quality of the human encounter.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [3]

We all hope to have intimate and genuine encounters with those around us, and in our best moments as musicians we encourage an intimate experience either between the audience and performers, or amongst the audience members themselves. The locale of our performance plays a large roll in the nature of this closeness. If we are sitting in a recital hall watching a great pianist perform Chopin’s preludes, it is possible that we could have a warm and human experience with the pianist. Empathizing with Chopin’s sense of nostalgic loss, we can have an intimate (indescribable) moment with a long-dead composer.  Entering a dispersed, environmental sound installation, or a work like Nat Evans’s, the interactions are more social, dynamic, and serendipitous.  A piece with many focal points (or none at all) creates a dense web of exchanges that are not controlled by sound, but made available by the platform or context of the event.  Yi-Fu Tuan offers another gem of advice regarding intimacy and the potential arena for human interaction.  He says that “one can no more deliberately design such places than one can plan, with any guarantee of success, the occasions of genuine human exchange.” [3] There is no science to composition, performance, or curation.  However, considering the relationship between sound and space can help us in framing poignant experiences, which will happen by accident and happy chance over the duration of a work.  As musicians, we can merely fill this time with sound and silence in the hope of dressing up intimate moments that would otherwise escape our attention.

Perhaps this is our humble aspiration: to create platforms for potential warm human encounters. When creating places and events for the presentation of sound in space, we can design environments of heightened intimacy and exchange by sonically framing an environment.  No one system for doing this is superior, but different contexts inspire disparate experiences for the concertgoer. They offer different kinds of intimacy, or a complete lack thereof. I often wonder in what ways can we make art music more real to people, providing a potential for true awareness and exchange.  I believe that we have to draw our own conclusions and might do well to look to our peers in relevant fields like design, urban planning, food, aesthetics, visual art, and human geography for guidance toward discovering new answers.



1. Hubbard, Phil, and Rob Kitchin, eds. Key Thinkers on Place and Space. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2004. 4.

2. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. 3.

3. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. 138-41.

4. Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958. 184.


Chris Kallmyer

Chris Kallmyer performing on a bison horn for a bison dinner at the Museum of Contemprary Art Denver. Photo by Alex Stephens

Chris Kallmyer is a performer, composer, and sound artist living in Los Angeles, California, who works in sound installation, composition, trumpet, and electronic music. He has presented work at the Walker Art Center, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Hammer Museum, the Getty Center, REDCAT, and other spaces in America and Europe. His work is influenced by a sense of place, architecture, field recordings, and outdoor listening.

Thanks to Andrew McIntosh, Ken Ehrlich, Mark Allen, Katie Tate, and Chris Rountree for their time, energies, and ideas about this piece.